A little disclaimer for the reader of this review: I've not heard any of these works on this CD in their original form. Before exploring the Naxos Four Hand Series, I had not heard any orchestral/chamber work from Brahms except the Variations on Haydn and a few Hungarian Dances. I'm on an outlandish and rare path of exposing myself to Brahms exclusively through Naxos' Four Hand Piano series. My first taste was the German Requiem for Four Hands, and I was breathless. I still feel stunned by Brahms's music.
I must apologize because I cannot inform the Brahms lovers out there how these four hand arrangements measure up to the original string quartets. I'm sure there's many shades of colors and beautiful subtleties that cannot be transferred to the piano. And I cannot comment, like Mr. Morrison below me about the differences. However, I can speak from a pianophile's point of view that this music is in a class of its own on the piano. As a fledgeling Brahmsian, I can also say that these arrangements of the quartets are just as graceful and first-rate as the music in the previous volumes of this series. Brahms's music always works on the piano, whether it's the German Requiem, the Symphony No. 4, or these magnificent String Quartets, Brahms can always infuse his arrangements with power and immaculate clarity. His arrangements can all be heard as if they were an original piano composition. In my view, these arrangements should not be compared to the original at all; they are musically efficacious and quite worthy on the piano, and that's all that matters here.
The first String Quartet in C minor is bursting with drama and Beethovenian splendor. Pianistically, the first movement is a powerhouse. This piano duo combines an impassioned interpretation with a supreme mastery of dynamics. The musical content is just pure Brahms: noble, beautiful, introspective, and brimming with agreeable thematic development. The second movement is a stream of tenderness on the piano. With gorgeous harmonies and fluid phrases, it sounds like it could be a fine second movement of a piano sonata. The mood of the third movement seems connected to the second, but is richer in melody and the little allegretto theme is a wonderful invention from Brahms. Although the entire movement seems like it's played in pp, the piano duo play with an unstable touch, like they could just explode into brilliant passage works at any moment. This never happens until the fourth movement, where the fire from the first movement is rekindled. Brahms conveys a seemingly infinite amount of ideas. The music itself sounds intense, heroic, and magnificent enough to be a movement from a grand sonata. Whatever the original string quartet movement sounds like, the piano duo has given me enough satisfaction with such a full-blooded and animated execution.
The second String Quartet in A minor is another high-quality creation from Brahms. Even lacking the aural experience of the original version, I think the music is so tremendous and feel that the piano arrangement imbues it with clarity and dynamism. The first movement is one of those furious allegro's that swells with fervor. Both the first and second theme are exemplary opposites of tension and release. The power and rapture of these themes are expressed with such sensitivity: at once, the duo is in the midst of a turbulent brio and then a second later they whisper to one another. Can a string ensemble really match this? The second movement is another example: extreme quiet and pensive reflections with a few splices of fortissimo moments. Phrases of somber beauty abound here and this kind of andante is well-suited for the piano, in my opinion. The last two movements are grand tapestries of music. The counterpoint, as Morrison said below me, is never marred but rather unveiled. These movements are sheer polyphonic tour-de-forces and Brahms surprises me yet again with his incredible and infinite pools of musical ideas.
Bottom line: For those already aware of the high-caliber works featured here from Brahms, I'm sure I preach to the choir. However, I do this while also expressing my enthusiasm for this piano duo and why I think the piano performance of these works should be enjoyed. This kind of music, as I said, is perfect for the piano. Not only does it sound great in the sonorous and sparkling registers of the keyboard, but it sounds completely unhindered and clear. I might even be so bold as to suggest that the intimacy of the string quartet has been successfully rivaled here. Highly recommended.